Interview with Bipedal Soundscape Artists

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Erin Potter Tweet Us @BikeArlington@BikeArlington April 10, 2018
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Erin Potter is the Program Manager for BikeArlington. She appreciates Arlington’s low-stress street and trail network, which allows her to get places easily by bike.

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Two DC artists created a bike-powered sculpture that features unique Arlington sounds. You can check it out for yourself, as part of the Arlington Arts Truck.

This spring, the Arlington Art Truck hits the road to challenge traditional models of art venues. Its first piece is a stationary bicycle that activates a sound sculpture. Arlington Arts explains, “the pedaling powers a five-tiered turntable that houses custom vinyl records with distinct Arlington sounds. Visitors will control the speed of the turntables by operating—or riding—the bicycle, allowing riders to dictate the way the piece is experienced.”

Artists of the “Bipedal Soundscapes,” Emily Francisco and Alex Braden, were gracious enough to answer a few questions ahead of the premiere.

Interview with the Artists

Artworks you have created, collaboratively and as individual artists, are described as sound sculptures and soundscapes. How would you explain your work to a new audience?

Emily Francisco (EF): I never set out with the intention of creating “sound sculptures” but rather the medium lent itself to communicating ideas about function, fragility, and adaptation.

Alex Braden (AB): I’m still learning how to describe my work to new audiences. A recent elevator pitch was, “imagine a gallery designed to tour with your eyes closed.”

How did you become interested in working with sound as a medium?

EF: Growing up as a competitive percussionist, stage theater performer, and theater techie, it became impossible for me to successfully develop sculptures in a stagnant form. My undergraduate advisers encouraged me to focus on performance art, but I wanted to major in sculpture, so I studied both. As a result, I have extreme difficulty removing the element of human interaction from my projects. I’ve been incorporating sound into sculptures since I was 18. Over a decade ago, I made a very primitive single channel relative to Bipedal using spoken word records, but the design and motivations for that project were completely different.

AB: After about sixteen years of studying and teaching classical piano and jazz guitar, I went to George Mason to major in Jazz Studies. There I met Dr. Thomas Stanley—now a close friend. Thomas introduced me to sound beyond the confines of traditional music, helped me transfer from the music school to the art school, and together, we developed a multi-disciplinary Sound Art BFA, gathering credits from all over campus.

Bipedal Soundscapes, and a piece you previously collaborated on together, No Sharps, No Flats, ask for participation and activation from the viewer. What is most interesting to you about the relationship between the visitor and the sound sculpture?

EF: Granting authorship to the viewer creates a unique relationship between the object and viewer.

AB: I try to appreciate the tension between what I can and cannot control. Giving an audience agency the ability to modify or instigate artwork adds a level of randomness and unpredictability that I find very fascinating.

What is your process of collaboration like?

EF: It depends on the circumstances. Alex and I had similar ideas and interests before ever collaborating. We met through Transformer’s Exercises program focusing on Sound Artists and were mentored by Ryan Holladay. Alex and I approach similar ideas from different angles, he from a musician’s perspective and I from a sculptor’s perspective.

Bipedal Soundscapes started with a wild set of parameters established by the constraints of the Art Truck. There were many scrapped ideas over two years of discussions. Eventually the idea for Bipedal emerged over a coffee fueled brainstorming session. Tasks were then divided based on our strengths and schedules. Alex took full responsibility for capturing audio, mixing, and getting custom vinyl cut. I built the machine locked away in my apartment while heavily pregnant and after having a baby. Alex delivered all the supplies I couldn’t order online and tracked down the exercise bike in Baltimore.

AB: Our process changes from project to project. Though our aesthetics intersect and definitely complement each other, Emily and I have relatively different skill sets and interests. I think we do a good job of delegating and playing to our strengths. There’s nothing she can’t build, and I always leave our work sessions having learned something new.

What is something that surprised you during the creation of this piece?

EF: The focus on an efficient power source became a central element to the design, but it is so buried in the end. We needed power but didn’t want to rely on power from the engine running in the Art Truck. We developed a system to power the device simply using the bike. I was really proud of myself for working on that generator system, but I doubt anyone will notice or care about the generator system once the project is activated.

AB: This one had so many variables, it’d be hard to pick one. We’ve had some nasty surprises—things not working as we planned and so on—but that’s where growth, creativity, and adaptability became vital. We got lucky with the bicycle. Someone in Baltimore was selling it on Craigslist, and it happened to be perfect for our uses. The previous owners, now passed, rode it every day and tracked their mileage on a map of the States which I find to be beautiful, if not a bit romantic.

How did you decide which Arlington sounds to incorporate on the custom-made records?

AB: I had a few sounds in mind having lived in Arlington for nearly a decade. After tracking those, I honestly just rode my bike around with my mobile recorders looking for interesting or iconic sounds. There are some Netherlands Carillon samples on there, a good amount of bike sounds, and funny enough the HVAC system at Virginia Hospital Center makes a cameo.

What excites you about being the first Artists in Residence of the rather nontraditional Arlington Art Truck?

EF: The Art Truck serves as a resurrected version of Artisphere’s AIR Studio to me. The parameters of the Art Truck created a unique challenge though. It took so long to plan this project that I’m just thrilled it is actually happening.

With a mobile art venue and an interactive sound sculpture, what do you hope your audience takes away from their experience?

EF: With the way this project is set to unfold, we are likely to encounter non-traditional art audiences. I want visitors with no background or education in the arts to be able to enjoy this piece.

And finally, because we have to ask, what is your relationship to bikes and biking? Did that factor into selecting a stationary bike as an element of the work?

EF: Funny you ask. As I was riding my bike to school 16 years ago, I irritated a minor spinal injury, and I temporarily lost the ability to walk without falling. After that, my mother gave my gorgeous mint green and pastel pink vintage 10-speed away without telling me. I would have turned it into an art project if I had a say in the matter. A stationary bike is probably the only bike I actually can ride without injuring myself but that wasn’t a factor in designing Bipedal. A stationary bike lends itself to the structural needs of Bipedal.

AB: It may have! I ride my custom-built single speed (big shout out to John at Papillon Cycles) every day.

Ready to experience Bipedal Soundscapes? Visit arts.arlingtonva.us/arlington-art-truck for the upcoming Arlington Arts Truck stops.

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